Faced with an opportunity to seal their finals destiny, the North-West Tall Timbers Thunder will instead have to defeat its bogey side in the final round after a disappointing 95-91 loss to Diamond Valley in Devonport on Saturday night.
Following a set of favourable results in the penultimate round’s other games, a victory to the Thunder would have seen them able to avoid a must-win situation on Friday night against Hobart, a team that has thrashed them by an average of 34.7 points in the last three games.
More luck seemed to be on the home team’s side when the Eagles lost import Daniel Camps to an achilles injury after just three minutes of play and leading scorer Darcy Harding in the third quarter to concussion.
But the short-handed visitors rose to the occasion, led by 32 points from big man Michael Best and hot-shooting guard Joel Spear, who recovered from a scoreless first half to pour in 23 second-half points thanks to five three-pointers.
Left to ponder what might have been after the game, Thunder coach Sam Armstrong said a leaky defence and inability to stick to the plan haunted his side for most of the night.
“Giving up 95 points tonight on defence was way too many against a group that was down their import and second best scorer,” he said.
“It was really disappointing from where we have been defensively.
“We had a scouting report in place for Best that we didn’t follow, we stuck too long on pick and roll action and let him dive to the hoop too often and our help rotation defence wasn’t there.
“On top of that we weren’t able to guard dribble penetration or guard the three-point line – in all the focal areas we just didn’t get it done.”
After an opening two quarters that saw scores tied at both intervals, the Thunder edged out to a 55-49 lead with four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
But the Eagles responded through Spear, who came to life with an extraordinary burst of scoring that saw him score 16 of his sides next 18 points, including a buzzer beater, to put the visitors up 67-64 at three-quarter time.
Giving up 95 points tonight on defence was way too many against a group that was down their import and second best scorer.
NW Thunder coach Sam Armstrong
Looking to get the game back on their own terms, the Thunder were unable to hit the lead at any stage of the final quarter, with Diamond Valley’s margin extending out to nine points with just over three minutes remaining and 10 points with 1:05 left on the clock.
Late baskets to Jeremiah Ingram and Tre Armstrong kept things interesting in the final stages but the combination of Best and Spear sealed the deserved win for the Eagles.
“It was a bit like how we played last weekend – when we start to get a bit of rhythm, we do a couple of silly things and it breaks our ability to get a good run going,” Armstrong said.
“We didn’t play through the offence and once they guarded the first area we got bogged down and were continually forced into bad shots.”
Ingram led the Thunder, who shot the ball at 38.6 per cent from the field, with 24 points, with Ben Richmond adding 21 points and Lachie Barker 20 points.
A win to the Thunder (10-8) over the Chargers on Friday will see them qualify regardless of other results, but a loss puts them at the mercy of their closest rivals, with Mount Gambier (9-9) the most likely to move up thanks to winnable games against Melbourne and Sandringham.
“We just have to win if we are serious about it,” Armstrong said.
“We didn’t play finals basketball tonight and what we dished up out there won’t get it done even if we do get there.”